Thursday 19 April 2018

Volunteers breathe new life into old band hall

Billy Russell and Cllr John Snell on the cherry-picker to survey the roof condition
Billy Russell and Cllr John Snell on the cherry-picker to survey the roof condition

Community is alive and well in Rathnew, a fact that has been made clear by the resurrection of the crumbling former band hall in the heart of the village.

Last summer, there were fears that Wicklow County Council would issue a dangerous structure notice for the abandoned building, which is attached to a house and, at the time, had a gable end in need of serious repair.

With the sudden demolition of the caretaker's cottage in Rathnew cemetery fresh in their memories, the local community feared the same thing could happen again. They decided that urgent action was needed and quickly sprung into action to save the historic building. As Cllr John Snell said at the time: 'The building was built by the people of Rathnew, for the people of Rathnew and, therefore, belongs to the people of Rathnew.'

The hall dates back to 1928 and was built thanks to voluntary donations and voluntary labour. It served many community groups and organisations down through the years and has also acted as a venue for dances, music performances and drama productions.

The hall was once the headquarters for the old Rathnew Fife and Drum Band and was used to store their equipment and instruments. In the 1960s and 1970s it was used as a dispensary by nurses from time to time. It was also used for a period to store bunting and poles for the annual Corpus Christi procession.

Once the decision was made last summer to save the structure, volunteers began lining up to offer their services while other people offered donations towards the cause.

The team of volunteers began by clearing the building of debris and rubbish that had built up over the years, before securing the windows and doors. Once this was done, they could get a better look at the job at hand.

While the building may have been sitting idle for the best part of 30 years, volunteers were astonished at the high-levels of craftsmanship involved when the property was first constructed nearly 90 years ago.

'We couldn't get over how well preserved the windows and roof were,' said Cllr John Snell, who is among the team of volunteers breathing new life into the band hall.

'The roof was still in great nick. We were afraid there might be signs of woodworm in the timber but its fine. There was only some slight damage and leaks had caused the floors to rot, leaving the floor beyond salvaging,' said Cllr Snell.

'The location of the hall is as important as the building itself. It's very much right in the centre of the old thatched village.'

The walls are due to be fitted with 35 sheets of plaster board with insulation at the back of it. An electrician has also volunteered his services to connect the building.

Brick-work from the old caretaker's cottage will be incorporated into the fire-place which will be fitted with a stove to power the radiators, while solar panels will provide lighting for the building.

'We saved some of the bricks from the caretaker's cottage in Rathnew cemetery when it was demolished so we could incorporate a bit of local heritage into the new band hall,' said Cllr Snell.

'The bricks were manufactured by Rathnew Brickworks in Milltown who started up in the 1800s and continued until the late 1900s. They exported all over the world and the bricks are a nod to Rathnew's past.'

A plaque erected inside the hall by the local volunteers who constructed the building in 1928 has also been tracked down.

Jimmy Kearney was one of the original residents who built the hall and his son, Sean Kearney, has agreed to donate the plaque to the hall. It will be positioned in its old location inside the building.

A second plaque used to be situated on the outside of the building, stating that the premises was served as the local dispensary. This has yet to be located.

When works are complete, there are plans to erect new plaque on an outside wall of the band hall detailing a brief history of the building as well as its new purpose, which will see it become the new home of Rathnew Men's Shed.

Billy Russell is one of the volunteers carrying out work to the structure and also a member of the Men's Shed. While the work is important to him in terms of the group being based there when it's fully renovated, it also matters to him on a more personal level.

Billy was moved to get involved after the community rallied around him three years ago when his work shed burnt down.

'People were great, the way they helped get me back up and running and this is my way of giving a little something back,' said Billy.

'There really is a great sense of community in the village.

'I'm helping out with the renovations and I will be delighted to see what it looks like once it is finished.

'It will be great for the Men's Shed. I make garden furniture, wheelbarrows, wreaths, flower boxes, dog kennels and things like that. We will put any money we make from sales back into the hall to keep it going,' he said.

The efforts to save the band hall have sparked something in Rathnew and the drive to save and renew important buildings in the heart of the village is spreading, most notably with Rathnew Village Forum expressing an interest in the St Joseph's Girls School building. This has stood empty since St Coen's NS opened and, given the facilities it already boasts, could become a huge asset to the local community.

'The forum would be interested in taking on that building,' said Cllr Snell.

'We are drawing up a plan and would like to see the building serve the community. We think the building is listed but we would hate to see it converted into housing, like what has happened in other communities.

'This whole area was right in the middle of everything that used to happen in the old village. I just don't think turning it into housing would be acceptable for the heart of Rathnew,' he said.

The premises is already secure with fencing and also boasts plenty of space, heating and CCTV.

'It would make for an ideal library and heritage centre. There is a shed at the back of the property which would be ideal for storing things and would compliment the Men's Shed.

'The kids used to plant different stuff out the back and that would make for an excellent community garden.

'The youth in particular are missing out. With a community of this size, one which is growing all the time, Rathnew really should have its own library,' adds Cllr Snell.

'Get Involved' is a sustainable community initiative and competition developed by two local newspaper associations - NNI Local and the RNPAI. Between them, these two associations represent 51 local newspapers with a combined readership of 1.65 million people, across all the 26 counties in the Republic.

Local newspapers, including the Wicklow People and Bray People, are getting involved to promote voluntary sustainability projects and to ensure that local communities all over Ireland become much more resilient to the many challenges they face.

The projects will compete to be awarded for their work in a national competition. The overall prize fund is €7,000. The winning project will be awarded a bursary of €5,000, while two further bursaries of €1,000 each will be presented to the two runners-up.

Themes for the projects nationally include biodiversity, water, ecotourism, sustainable enterprise, community sustainable energy and resource efficiency and Green innovation.

Wicklow People